StB files opened to the public - but does the public care?

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By Rob Cameron The door to the Communist regime's secret past creaked open on Thursday, when President Vaclav Havel signed a new law allowing public access to almost all files belonging to the former secret police, the StB. The law allows any Czech citizen over the age of 18 to see documents held by the StB - under current legislation people are only allowed to see their own files. There will, of course, be exceptions - files that could risk lives or national security will be strictly off limits. But deciding which files fall into that category will be up to the defence and interior ministers, a situation some have called into question. Jiri Pehe is a former dissident and external adviser to President Havel:

"In general I am in favour, I think it should have been done a long time ago. The only problem I see with this is that the criteria under which this will be done are not very good. It will be quite difficult to distinguish sensitive information, and the people who will be in charge of the process cannot guarantee that this will be a process that will not damage some people's reputations. Because the former secret police gathered information in all areas of people's lives, and very often it was very private."

Some critics say it's just not fair, primarily because two-thirds of the StB files were destroyed, they were shredded. So information that we do have now doesn't really mean anything when only a third of the files still exist. What do you say to that?

" Well that's also a problem, because quite frankly the whole process of lustration [screening for former Communist Party membership or collaboration with the StB] in this country as well as looking into the StB files has been tainted by this very factor. It means that a lot of StB files have been destroyed, or were destroyed shortly after the fall of Communism, and one would expect that those files that were actually destroyed contained information on the big fish, so what we are dealing with are people who really didn't matter that much. So once again, perhaps this is one of the ironies of history - the big crooks will not get punished or revealed, but the little people who were caught in the web will, and that is of course a pity."

Was there a file on you?

"I have never looked. I've never really been interested. I presume there was, but I've never bothered to go to Pardubice and check, because of course there already is a law that allows people who have been followed and information gathered on them to go and look into their own files. But I've really never bothered to do so. I'm not really interested. Maybe also because it could really destroy my relationships with some people, who perhaps not meaning to do anything bad simply informed on other people for the secret police. And I am aware of the fact that there are so many different reasons why people did it that today I would probably not be able to distinguish well enough between people who did it under duress, who were forced to do it, and between people who did it because they were simply bad people. So perhaps sometimes it's better not to know."

Political analyst Jiri Pehe, external policy advisor to the Czech President, Vaclav Havel. Mr Havel, a former dissident who was imprisoned by the former regime, said on signing the law that "the importance of truth was higher than anything else". But do the people agree with him? Are they interested in seeing their own files? We went out onto the streets of Prague to find out.

"Absolutely, because a lot of people, including my family, had problems because other people gave information about what they did, with whom they spoke and that's all in the files. So I think it should be possible to be able to look at the files - whether I was watched or some other people gave information to the StB. I don't think they had a file on me, but I think they had one on my father. If I have the possibility to see it, I would go there."

"I wouldn't want to see any files because I can't imagine I would find my family, friends or relatives there. To say I welcome the opening of the files would be too much, though it's good for some people. But I personally am not interested."

Voices from the streets of Prague there, on the new law allowing public access to files held by the former secret police, the StB.